May 26, 2015
By Michael Calvert
(Appeared in the Spring 2016 Issue of the Birmingham Arts Journal)
I was sucker punched in the gut. The TV screen showed an angry crowd blocking the intersection of Pennsylvania Avenue and North Avenue in West Baltimore and flames engulfing a block on Gay Street in East Baltimore. CNN’s Anderson Cooper was “live” as young, Black men ran forward and hurled bricks at phalanxes of police hunched behind plexiglass shields. Helicopter searchlights swept the streets. Fleeing looters and burning buildings filled the screen. I was surprised that the CNN pictures hit me so hard – like an uppercut to the stomach I didn’t see coming.
Some 47 years before, as a 24-year old city planner, I had watched from my downtown apartment as clouds of smoke rose above flames from these same neighborhoods in response to Martin Luther King’s assassination. Police and fire sirens rose and fell as I witnessed chaos then. Those sounds and images came rushing back and nauseated me all these years later.
During the next twelve years, I labored to make plans to rebuild stores, houses, and playgrounds in the burnt neighborhoods. On several nights of each week, I met with residents in church basements, recreation centers, and community centers. I cajoled the bureaucracy, city councilmen, and even the mayor to build the projects inscribed on maps during those neighborhood meetings The revival of Baltimore’s inner city was a cause I still cared about 47 years later.
I hesitated but I came to Baltimore for our scheduled visit three days after the riots of 2015 to see Finley, my two-year-old granddaughter and her parents. On a perfect day in May, children squealed as they chased each other up ladders, across platforms, and down corkscrew slides on the colorful equipment with a carpet of wood chips to cushion them should they fall. Parents and grandparents dutifully pushed swings while children demanded they go higher and faster. Johns Hopkins University was nearby, and the playground looked like a UNICEF brochure with children from China, India, and Africa.
My two-year-old granddaughter’s twin blonde ponytails flew while I pushed her as high as I dared. A thin African-American man in a purple Ravens’ jersey and sweatpants entered the park with a boy clutching his hand. Although the boy, who wore a Ravens’ tee shirt, seemed too young to swing safely, he was soon chortling with glee on the swing next to us.
“They never seem to get tired of swinging,” I ventured.
“Little ones love it. Raven’s my only son, but I remember my daughters couldn’t get enough of the playground. They in high school now.”
“Finley’s my granddaughter. I’m long past having teenagers in the house. They can be difficult.”
“My girls live with their Momma, but I hear some stories. Now this little man is my only son. I’m sure he’s going to be a ballplayer. Football, I hope, but basketball would be OK.”
Finley had to scream to get my attention. She said she was ready to go to the sandbox. Raven announced, “Me, too, Daddy.”
Once the kids were settled in the sandbox with shovels and buckets, we sat on a bench and I introduced myself.
“Reggie Jones here. I bring my boy here most afternoons. His mother picks him up when she get off work in the cafeteria at the Loyola dorm. I work at Alonzo’s right up the road here on Cold Spring Lane.”
“I’ve been to Alonzo’s. Really good burgers.”
“You’re right about that. I work the grill.”
“You probably grilled those good burgers.”
“I reckon I did,” but I’m moving up. Now I’m tending bar,” he replied with a slow nod when a low-flying helicopter clattered by. Our eyes followed it’s path until it hovered to the southwest.
“It’s over Sandtown. That’s where I live, but I don’t want any part of that foolishness that’s been going on there. Them punk kids stealing, burning, and carrying on.”
“Bad for the neighborhood,” I replied. “Especially losing the CVS.”
“Right. Where old people going to get their medicine now? CVS was the only drug store we had. Now, I don’t care much for them Koreans.”
“I’m surprised. There are Koreans living in Sandtown?” I said.
“I don’t know where they live, but they run all the corner stores. Sell liquor, cigarettes and lottery tickets mostly, but some got some groceries, clothes, and even toys. Prices all sky high.”
“No supermarkets and other stores, I guess.”
“Nah, only the Koreans, and they don’t give a damn about us,” Reggie said louder. “I been going to Mr. Kim’s near my house for years, mainly to cash my paycheck, and I always buy some things. He knows me, but the night I needed a white shirt to start working behind the bar, Mr. Kim wouldn’t let me have one until I got payed later that night. That slant-eyed bastard pissed me off good.” He paused. “Still and all, it ain’t right to tear up their stores and burn them out.”
“All this is sure giving Baltimore a black eye,” I replied and immediately wondered if the phrase was offensive.
“I’m right there with President Obama and the mayor. Those bottle throwers and store burners are nothing but thugs. I hope they arrest them all and put them in jail for a good long time.”
“Me, too. Those thugs destroyed the CVS and a lot of progress that’s taken years to build. A God damned shame,” I replied with more fervor than I intended.
The modulated thump of the helicopter had become the bassline for the rise and fall of the children’s shouts and shrieks for a couple of minutes.
“You’re a big Ravens fan,” I said, motioning toward his jersey.
“You bet! Named my son Raven. He watches their games on TV with me. He’s going to be a big fan like his daddy. Maybe he play for the Ravens someday. Who knows?”
He looked at his watch and said, “Time for me to handoff Raven to his Momma and go tend bar. My white shirt is pressed and waiting for me in the back room. Later, man.”
Reggie coaxed Raven out of the sandbox, and the walked with him slowly towards the Loyola dorms on Cold Spring Lane. I extracted Finley, brushed sand off as best I could, and buckled her into the stroller for the walk home.
My daughter-in-law was on the porch swing scanning the Baltimore Sun and took Finley inside for a snack before dinner. I sank into a wicker chair on the porch and picked up the paper. As I read the stories about how the peaceful protests were overwhelmed by thugs looting businesses and torching buildings, my grip on the newspaper tightened, and I shook my head in sad disbelief. Along with many others in city government and in the community, I had pushed to spend millions of dollars, probably hundreds of millions, in Sandtown and other neighborhoods for new apartments and houses, modern schools and recreation centers, additional playgrounds and ballfields, and new stores like the CVS that was now a charred shell. How could there be riots once again after all that rebuilding?
“Hello,” said Roger from the porch of the adjoining row house. “How are you doing?” with a benevolent smile.
“Fine, I guess. Just reading about these thugs destroying their neighborhoods. Very distressing.”
“I agree, it is very troubling,” replied Roger, a kindly neighbor who was a retired child psychologist from Johns Hopkins University.
“Thugs! That’s what the president and the mayor called the rioters, and they got it right,” I said with a surge of emotion that surprised me.
“I understand. Didn’t it begin with high school students trying to get home on the subway at the Mondawmin Mall station, but the subway was shut down?” asked Roger.
“Yeah, someone started trouble in the mall and they all ran inside. Some of them broke windows, grabbed merchandise, and the riot was on,” I snorted.
“Do you think some of the students were just curious and wanted to see what was happening?”
“I suppose so, but CNN showed lots of young people running out with their arms full of clothes, sneakers, and whatever they could carry in their arms. Clothes on hangers, bottles of liquor, window fans…” I squinted and scowled at Roger.
“Yes, hard to understand,” said Roger as he stroked his chin like the counselor he was. “How valuable were the goods that each of the looters carried away? Probably not worth much. Maybe it was a statement. More likely, I suspect, most of those young people were caught up in the frenzy. Mob psychology is powerful.”
“Well, thugs threw rocks and bottles at the police and firemen. Several were hospitalized. They even cut the fire hoses when the firefighters were trying to save the CVS for the neighborhood. Serious crimes. I hope the police identify these criminals on videos and put them behind bars.”
“Maybe some of the students and other young people were just watching all the excitement and making pictures with their cell phones to show their friends. You know, people stop to take photographs of approaching tornados, slow down to see what they can at highway accidents, and gather outside bars to watch fist fights.” Roger offered tentatively.
“Yeah, but I saw lots of young people on TV, yelling slogans and cheering on the thugs destroying their own neighborhoods. They should have made them stop.”
“Hard to stop a mob. It’s asking a lot for someone to step in front of a mob,” said Roger evenly, and continued, “But you’re right, there were definitely some awful crimes committed, especially the assaults on the police and firemen, but I suspect that most of the young people on the streets were not thugs.”
“You’re probably right, just a few were smashing glass, grabbing merchandise, and throwing stuff at the police,” I conceded reluctantly.
“But the others should have gone home.”
“As a psychologist, I always told parents that their teenagers may do some appalling things, but they are not irredeemably bad kids. There was surely some bad very behavior out there, but i don’t think most of those young people are thugs,” Roger concluded with a shrug and a smile.
Finley came out to tell me dinner was ready. I scoped her into my arms and said, “You’re never going to act like a thug are you?”
“No, Granddad,” she replied with her head cocked slightly. I squeezed her tightly.
The next afternoon, Finley and I arrived at the playground and found Reggie and Raven at the swings. Raven was excited to see Finley, but Reggie responded to my cheerful hello with a grunt. When the kids moved on to the sandbox, I tried again, asking Reggie, “How you doing today?”
He stared silently, sighed and said, “Been waiting in lines down at the police lockup. My daughters got caught up in that mess at Mondawmin. They said they were just standing around watching and trying to get me on my cell to come and get them because the transit was shut down. They don’t like the police, especially them at their high school, but I sure don’t see them throwing stuff at the police. My girls are good kids – not thugs, you hear?”
“Yeah. I’ll bet they were just trying to get home and got caught in a group that the police grabbed and took downtown. Maybe someone in the group said something or threw something, but even if your daughters did something, they’re not thugs.”
“You’re right about that, man.”